Hamburg and Bremen

Saturday 27th September 2008, Hamburg
This campsite is situated fifteen kilometres out from the centre of Hamburg. Fortunately we could purchase a day ticket for two enabling us to use the city's trains and buses. This morning we walked to the bus stop through a very smart residential area of the kind of properties we are more used to in western Europe, where more people tend to live in houses rather than flats. Each property was surrounded by carefully manicured lawns and most had BMWs on the driveway. There are certainly many people around Hamburg with incomes and lifestyles far superior to those we have found elsewhere on our recent travels.

The bus dropped us at the U-Bahn station where we took the underground into the centre of Hamburg. Everywhere was immaculate, clean and shining with no litter and very little graffiti. It was almost too perfect and lacked atmosphere. However, the city was very badly damaged by fire in 1842 and most of what survived that was destroyed by Allied bombings during WW2. So it has been virtually built as a new city, though some facades have been restored and incorporated into the wide shopping malls. It is certainly a pleasant, clean and smart city, built surrounding two lakes on the river Alster which bring a recreational facility right into the city, with cycle tracks around the smaller lake and the surrounding parkland while yachts, sailing boats, dinghies, rowing boats and canoes all make full use of the water.

Aussenalster, Hamburg

Binnenalster, Hamburg

Along the Alster, Hamburg

The 19th century neo-renaissance town hall is the most outstanding building of the city. It is massive with its green copper roofs, its spire, ornamented facades and many statues. It has a courtyard with an impressive fountain and a very select Ratskeller beneath the building. Inside it is also highly decorated.

Town Hall, Hamburg

Town Hall interior, Hamburg

Town Hall courtyard, Hamburg

The city is twinned with Shanghai and we browsed an exhibition of photos reflecting similar scenes in the two cities which, to Ian's delight, included manhole covers from both Hamburg and Shanghai!

Manhole covers from Hamburg and Shanghai, Hamburg

Hamburg's port area is the largest and most important in Germany. Like so many of the north German cities it was a Hanseatic town and has huge 19th century brick bonded warehouses where shipping goods have always been sorted and stored. This is a fascinating area to wander through, on high wooden walkways that look down onto a network of broad canals enabling boats to arrive directly at the waterfront entrances to the warehouses, much as they do in Venice.

Bonded warehouses from the 1880s, Hamburg

City seen from the walkways in the port area, Hamburg

We strolled in the sunshine along the bustling waterside watching the huge trading ships arriving and leaving. There were hundreds of cranes silhouetted against the skyline. On a weekday they would all be moving and turning, carrying out a graceful ballet as they loaded the cargo onto the merchant ships moored below them. Meanwhile, all along the quayside stalls were selling plates of currywurst, chips and tomato ketchup. The Saturday crowds just couldn't get enough of it all.

Saturday crowds enjoying the port area, Hamburg

Back in the town we discovered just how expensive Hamburg is. Already we'd been taken aback to be charged 28 euros a night for our rather basic campsite behind Ikea whereas other sites, with internet, have only cost around14 euros. Now we discovered that baked herring with potato salad that we'd seen in Wismar yesterday for 3.50 euros, is sold in Hamburg for 14 euros!

It didn't matter to us though. We were in Hamburg and what else could we possibly have for lunch than a hamburger? So off we set in search of authentic local cusine! We finally found it in Hamburg's red light district known as the Reeperbahn.

We have to say that it was not a brilliant experience. Ian's academic classical German education had not prepared him for ordering hamburgers, fries and coke from a young German person who did not seem to have benefited from any German education whatsoever. How would Arthur Schopenhauer have responded if someone snapped at him "fries? large or small? ketchup or mayo? ice? large or giant? meal deal, same with or without. tray?" And he would have had possible advantage of being a native German speaker. Eventually we got our hamburgers though, and here's the evidence.

Authentic local cuisine, Hamburg

Outside in the sunshine again we found ourselves surrounded by the Reeperbahn's sleezy strip clubs, sex cinemas and hourly hotels. It is an area that lacks finesse! Pigalle and the Moulin Rouge have nothing to fear from such competition and Soho has charm and sophistication by comparison. We stepped our way carefully between broken bottles, dog turds and "pavement pizzas", taking care to avoid being swept into the gutter along with the debris from last night's debaucheries. Amidst it all, Ian was pestered by hopeful touts to go inside and see a sex show! This during the afternoon! What must it be like at night?

Cleaning up after a dirty night out, Reeperbahn, Hamburg

Reeperbahn, Hamburg

We were not there as curious voyeurs but as children of the 60's in search of the Beatles. It was in Hamburg's Reeperbahn that they used to perform in the heady days of their early career. Ian, not the most likely expert on 20th century pop history, assured me they played at a club called Lucky Star. It probably no longer exists but we did find one called Lucky Star Two. We also discovered a plaque, which Ian refuses to add to his manhole collection despite its size and shape, and a metal sculpture celebrating their performances in the city.

Beatles-Platz, Hamburg

Fab Four live on in the Reeperbahn, Hamburg

We made our way back across town in the warm sunshine through the beautiful city parks with their lakes and fountains strung out along the line of the old city fortifications.

Rather hideous Bismarck monument in the gardens, Hamburg

In the botanical gardens attempts were made to lure Ian into the hothouses by touts eager for him to see their prize specimens. "Hey gov', send the missus off to look at the cactuses and we'll give you an experience you'll never forget! Succulents, Venus fly traps, Virginia creepers. We've got the lot. How does a lush Mexican orange take your fancy? No problem! Or we've got the sauciest scarlet runner, special rate for a gent like you sir". Fortunately Ian's classical German education didn't understand any this either and he passed on with me to the agaves and cactuses oblivious to the temptations being offered.

Planten un Blomen, greenhouses in the botanical gardens, Hamburg

Jill among the cactuses, Hamburg

Reputedly the largest Japanese garden in Europe, Hamburg

Under the bridges in the park, and along beside the hedges we discovered several tramps sleeping rough. There obviously still are homeless vagrants even in such an affluent city as this. They carried all their possessions in plastic bags piled up beside them as they slept peacefully in their sleeping bags. Later in the town we found the usual groups of shaggy young men asking for money to feed their huge Alsatian dogs. In the train coming home someone very much the worse for wear got on and asked everyone loudly for money. As nobody responded he wobbled his way up and down the carriage singing to us for several stops when he finally tumbled out of the door at one of the stations. We never really saw anything like this in eastern Europe. Those begging there tended to be elderly women, frail and helpless who had somehow fallen through any social security network and were truly in need of help.

By the time we'd strolled around the lake and made our way back towards the main station we were rather weary. The streets were now packed with Saturday afternoon shoppers and it was pleasant walking the arcades with them for a while. We saw a dozen or more police cars parked in the city centre with police in riot gear with helmets, shields and weapons but they must have been looking for trouble as everything seemed very peaceful and happy. There seems to have been a major football match in the city this afternoon, so it may have been connected with that.

Shoppers in the city centre, Hamburg

We returned home to Modestine very tired indeed. We'll need to move on tomorrow and we won't be sorry to leave this campsite. Hamburg was worth the visit but not really worth coming back to again. The problem with really large cities is that it takes time to get under their skin. Unless we are here for considerably longer, staying an extra day won't add greatly to what we have already seen and learnt today.

Sunday 28th September 2008, Bremen
This evening we are in Bremen about ninety kilometres west of Hamburg. The roads here are so fast and smooth we reached here in next to no time using the motorway. The campsite was easy to find and by midday we were sitting in the sunshine beside a very pleasant lake having lunch.

We are about six kilometres outside of the city centre but there are dedicated cycle routes around the lake, through the woodland, right into the heart of Bremen. Everywhere is so flat and smooth we practically free wheeled most of the way there and back, parking Hinge and Bracket just outside the main station.

Most people think of Bremen in connection with Grimm’s fairy tale about the musicians – a donkey, a cat, a dog and a cockerel – whose noise used to keep everyone awake. They were forgiven however when they saved the city from attack by making such a dreadful racket they woke the inhabitants in time to see off the enemy. A cast statue records this incident outside the town hall. Other, brightly coloured versions adorn street corners around the city.

Musicians of Bremen, classic version

Musicians of Bremen, popular version

Nothing to do with fairy tales, just good fun, Bremen

Bremen is also very important as a German port. There is the huge international shipping port of Bremerhaven some forty seven kilometres to the north, but Bremen has its own important harbour on the river Weser. It, like so many cities we have seen in Germany, became a free state and member of the Hanseatic trading league in 1404.

With its excellent policy to encourage cycling and a regular tram network the city has had great success keeping cars out of the town centre so generally walking through the streets is a pleasant and reasonably safe experience. Seeing that people seemed to be cycling in both directions along the cycle routes, when we eventually returned home we assumed it was okay to ride back the same route as we had come. Fortunately a good natured lady warned us, very nicely, at the traffic lights that we risked a fine from the police unless we crossed to the other side.

Trams, but little traffic, on the streets of Bremen

Less savagely attacked by the Allies during the Second World War Bremen has retained far more of its original buildings than Hamburg. These are generally concentrated around the main square with its stunning Renaissance style Rathaus built between 1405 and 1410. This, together with the huge statue of Roland have been inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage list since 2004. The Roland statue is one of 26 found in cities across Germany. It is the largest at over 5.5 metres tall.

Rathaus, Bremen

Main square in Bremen with the Rathaus and Cathedral

On all sides there are wonderful mediaeval buildings. This is becoming repetitive but there is only so much one can say about these stunning north German towns. They are all amazing and seeing a different one each day, one has tended to merge with the next, which is a shame as they each have their own particular merits.

We looked around inside the gothic cathedral with its high, decorated arches. It has its own museum with church plate, early church psalters and textiles recovered from the tombs of the city’s bishops. These struck us as rather bizarre. Did they really dig up the 14th century bishops and strip them of their robes, mitres and even shoes? There were also several paintings of merit including the life-size Man of Sorrows by Lucas Cranach the elder.

Inspiring exhibition of sculptures from recycled timber in the Cathedral, Bremen

There were areas of historic houses to browse in the Schnoor, some dating back to the 15th century. We also found the Böttcherstrasse, a pedestrianised street which was a riot of brickwork from different periods that blended so well we were not always sure of the age of the building we were looking at. Here there is a museum of the 19th century Bremen artist Paula Modersohn-Becker and the Roselius Haus - used as the museum of Bremen history. In this street there is also a carillon in regular use made from Meissen porcelain.

Streets of 15th and 16th century buildings in the Schnoor, Bremen

Böttcherstrasse, Bremen

House with the Meissen carillon between the gables, Böttcherstrasse, Bremen

Dusk was falling when we reluctantly dragged ourselves away from the sights and rejoined our bikes. Hopefully the weather will stay good and we can return tomorrow for a second day of discovery. By the time we arrived back at the campsite the lovely weather had called it a day and a gentle mizzle had started. With luck it will not last long.

Normally, coming from England, one arrives in a country by air and is immediately engulfed in the national atmosphere. Travelling gradually across Europe from one country to the next we are very aware that national characteristics do not necessarily start and end at the borders. Historically those boundaries have never been fixed anyway. Here we are in the Low Countries, an area comprising Flanders, Holland, North Germany and southern Denmark. So the feel, the landscape and the architecture are similar. Although we are still in Germany there are windmills – old and new, houses have stepped gables, brick is the main building material even for the gothic churches with their slender spires. The northern seas have historically influenced the area both for the international shipping trade and fisheries. Watching cyclists crossing the cobbles in front of the buildings in the town hall square this afternoon, it could just as easily have been in Holland or Belgium as Germany. We also discovered here a society for the protection of Plattdeutsch or Low German. Even language is no respecter of borders; as one moves across the Low Countries Flemish merges into Dutch, Frisian, Low German, High German and Danish.

Old windmill, Bremen

Monday 29th September 2008, Bremen
Following our sunny day yesterday we were hoping that last night's rain would be gone by breakfast time. False hopes. Still hoping it would clear we bought wifi time from the campsite and had an "admin" morning. After lunch the rain had cleared but it was too late to do anything much if we cycled into town and we'd discovered during the morning that all the museums were shut anyway on Mondays. Instead we ser off for a cycle ride around the lake, branching off to follow a pretty canal on the edge of the woodland. On this side of Bremen is a lovely landscaped park with lakes, canals and little bridges. It has mature trees, statues and pretty corners. In the centre is a castle, now used as an hotel. Unfortunately the rain began again and we were quite lost in the maze of yew trees lining the different paths. By the time we'd cycled over a few bridges and round a lake or two we were soaked and very relieved to recognise the avenue of chestnut trees beside the canal we'd followed from the campsite.

We arrived back soaked through. Hinge and Bracket are far too wet to pack back in their bags and we have returned to the warmth of the campsite's communal lounge to dry off. As I blog, Ian is busy listening to our CD of how to survive in 39 countries of Europe. He's hoping to learn enough Dutch to buy himself some happy buns in one of Amsterdam's brown cafés.

Cormorant on the lake, Bremen

Heron on the canal, Bremen